Back and Forth with the Del McCoury Band
“When I got the most excited about anything,” reminisces Del McCoury, “was when I heard Bill Monroe and Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs in the 40s man that was it.” Simple mathematics will tell you that the silver-haired bandleader of the Del McCoury Band (DMB) has been around bluegrass music longer than most of us have been alive, and he’s got the stories to prove it. Del recalls the first time he met Jerry Garcia, who had recently joined David Grisman to play the five-string banjo. Del, a banjo player himself at the time, was performing at a Whippoorwill Lake Bluegrass Festival in Warrenton, Virginia and Grisman, wanting Garcia to hear Porter Church finesse the five-string, sought out Del to inquire about Church’s whereabouts. “Porter Church was there because I had seen him,” recalls Del. “I was in a hurry but I said, I know right where he’s at.’ So I took em up there to his motor home and when I got there, he had his banjo here (pointing to his lap) and right there (pointing between his feet) was a brown paper bag. It was too late. He was blacked out. He had his picks on and everything,” finishes Del with a laugh. Del McCoury’s repertoire of one-of-a-kind stories is accented by his infectious smile a smile that has experienced firsthand the ebb-and-flow of the bluegrass industry for over half a century.
In the early 60s, Del traded in his banjo to play guitar and sing lead vocals for none other than Bill Monroe himself. “[Switching instruments] was kinda strange to me but I was game for about anything in those days,” says Del. “I thought, Well, I’ll try this and if I don’t like it, I’ll just quit.’ But I liked it. It was a challenge.” Not surprisingly, bluegrass musicians have always faced numerous challenges during their uphill battles toward success. Historically, bluegrass has been commercially ignored and some dismiss it, albeit wrongly, as the bastard child of country music. “Twang, twa-twang, twang, twang,” my roommate mocks when she hears the sweet sounds of McCoury et al. Even Monroe, declared the “Father of Bluegrass” by a 1986 Congressional resolution, was not beyond the struggles that have been all too common to bluegrass musicians throughout the past 75 years or so. The emergence of rock-and-roll stripped him of his fan base, and Del’s son Ronnie (mandolin) speaks to Monroe’s frustration: “The 50s came and rock-and-roll had [Monroe] sitting at the house. He didn’t even want to go on the road.”
While bluegrass has certainly experienced its fair share of troubles, Del singles out three periods when bluegrass experienced its greatest growth: the mid-60s with the advent of the bluegrass festival, the mid-80s with the creation of the International Bluegrass Music Association (IBMA), and today. “Every music I think has its day and this is the day for bluegrass,” says Del. “[At least] it seems that way to me.” Considering the source, it’s hard to dismiss these words as hype or happenstance. With a slight hint of helpless regret in his voice, Del continues: “Bill Monroe died before he saw this, ya know, just before. He was the guy. He was the first bandleader of a bluegrass band ya know. He didn’t live to see this popularity. He just missed it, a couple years.”
Bassist Mike Bub thinks that the recent surge in the popularity of bluegrass parallels, in part, the growth of the Internet. “People go and see us and hear us or hear this type of music and they are going to communicate that to somebody else,” he says. “You can find it now. It’s the kind of advertising you just can’t buy.” With his smile beaming wide, Del jokes: “Don’t even need critics these days. It’s on the Internet.” Also, continues Bub, “People are discovering that this music has vitality and it’s real. It’s two microphones with five people up there with instruments. There’s no gizmos involved. It’s very real and actual and alive.”
Likely as influential, commercially at least, has been the Coen Brothers’ surprisingly successful 2000 film O Brother, Where Art Thou? In addition to giving bluegrass an audience on the silver screen, the film’s soundtrack recently picked up five Grammys, including one for album of the year. However, Dan Hays, Executive Director of the IBMA, attributes bluegrass’ recent accolades to three factors broader than the success of a single film or soundtrack. He cites the accessibility of the artists (and the subsequent collective relationship that develops between performers and fans), the public’s current openness to new music and cultures, and the sheer talent of the musicians touring today. “Artistically,” Hays explains, “I’m not sure that we’ve ever had the blessings that we have today from artists that go back to the pioneer days of bluegrass music in the 40s and 50s all the way up to artists that are doing a wonderful job of creating and presenting their own interpretations of the music here in the 21st century.” One of these “pioneer” artists, 75-year-old Ralph Stanley, was awarded his first ever Grammy (best male country vocal) for his work on “O Death,” a tune of O Brother fame.
While bluegrass is experiencing a revival of sorts, it is fair to say that in some ways, DMB has been left behind. Despite having won more IBMA awards than anyone in the history of bluegrass (31 to date), its commercial success still lurks in the shadows of some of its bluegrass peers. Nickel Creek recently went gold (500,000 units) with its self-titled 2000 debut and bluegrass-influenced bands like String Cheese Incident (SCI) regularly sell-out out huge arenas, while DMB is left to play smaller, less-heralded affairs. There’s no bitterness on the part of DMB; it realizes that many of the bluegrass-influenced bands today (e.g., SCI, Leftover Salmon, Yonder Mountain String Band) are so successful, in part, because they don’t simply play traditional bluegrass. While these bands may have strong bluegrass roots or play traditional bluegrass songs, it is their willingness to embrace the jamband approach to performing that sets them apart. DMB plays straight-up traditional bluegrass (i.e., songs tight in structure that are generally four to five minutes at most) whereas YMSB or SCI will jam for 20, 30, 40 minutes on end. “I don’t remember seeing a Del set where they do too much jamming,” says Yonder Mountain String Band bassist Ben Kaufmann. “I’m sure Ronnie or Robbie [McCoury, banjo] or Jason [Carter, fiddle] would do some great jamming in other contexts.”
While DMB may lack the household notoriety and record sales of some of its counterparts, it would be undeniably unfair to ignore DMB’s impact on the explosion of bluegrass. Hays says DMB belongs to the “upper echelon” of bluegrass musicians and quips that “Del certainly learned at the feet of the Father,” referring to Del’s time spent with Monroe’s Bluegrass Boys. “I can’t imagine them not continuing to prosper and be recognized,” he continues, “because they’re just unbelievably talented, and on top of that, they’re just great people.” Del’s impact on the jamband scene, albeit at times unbeknownst to him, is also not open to much debate. “I think that in the jamband scene, awareness of Del and his music is pretty high,” explains Kaufmann. “Mike Gordon from Phish incorporated bluegrass tunes in their sets and that puts those songs before a large and perhaps otherwise bluegrass-illiterate audience.” Phish’s affinity for Del’s music led it to place his “Beauty of My Dreams” in regular rotation on its setlists for a handful of years, and Phish recorded “Beauty” for its 1998 release, The Story of the Ghost. DMB appeared onstage with Phish in 1999 and then again in 2000. “Phish is a great scene,” says Bub. “They’re open to havin’ a bunch of bluegrass guys come in and jam with them, and they love that.” The later collaboration between Phish and DMB (in Antioch, Tennessee) also included Wynona Judd, Ricky Skaggs and Sam Bush. The star-studded collective performed “Freebird,” in honor of Judd’s one-year anniversary of her divorce. “It’s pretty neat to expose people to this music,” says Ronnie, “and to have Dad be one of the guys that does it because he’s the real deal.”
At the same time, the younger faction of DMB (i.e., everyone but Del), continues to expose Del to new music on a regular basis. “I get to hear songs that I normally wouldn’t get to,” admits Del. “These guys are younger and they hear more music than I do these days.” Perhaps, at least in the case of Ronnie, he’s simply returning the favor. Without reserve, Del embraced Ronnie’s skills on the mandolin at a young age and introduced him to the world of professional bluegrass. Ronnie joined his father professionally at age 14 and five or six years later, Del introduced Ronnie to Grisman. Only a year or two after that, Grisman bequeathed a gift to Ronnie that even the best pickers in the world could only dream of receiving. “Grisman gave me the mandolin I play when I was 21,” recalls Ronnie. Ronnie, who won a record eight consecutive IBMA mandolin player of the year awards, plays the same mandolin even today. Not to be left out is Del’s only other son, Robbie, who plays banjo for DMB and has also, not surprisingly, been recognized by the IBMA for his picking. In fact, the entire band – Del, Ronnie, Robbie, Bub and Carter have all won IBMA awards (in addition to those awarded to DMB as a whole).
2001 played host to the 12th Annual IBMA Music Awards and many expected Ronnie to continue his almost-decade-long reign. However, Chris Thile of Nickel Creek ended Ronnie’s run, being the first mandolin picker other than Ronnie to take home the mandolin player of the year award since Sam Bush was awarded the honor three times between 1990 and 1992. Unfortunately, for the first time in the history of the awards, DMB went home completely empty-handed, despite a well-received effort in Del & The Boys. As with everything, the band takes it in stride. “We just found out that the French judge was pressured into giving up their vote,” jokes Bub, only a day or two after the recent Olympic ice skating fiasco. “It made it under the wire to get into the nominations sheet,” he continues, ”but on the other hand, it didn’t make it onto people’s stereos until the last couple of months.” Calling Del & The Boys “one of the strongest things they’ve ever done,” Hays says, “I have no doubt in my mind that as this year’s awards roll around, that they will be one of the leading nominees again, as they were last year, and that’s going to continue for quite awhile.”
Del & The Boys is its second release for Ceili Music and Skaggs Family Records, the label run by seven-time Grammy award winner, Ricky Skaggs. Previously the band had been with Rounder Records, but it finds Skaggs Family Records more accommodating. “I don’t have anything against Rounder, ya know” says Del, “But they have a lot of irons in the fire,” says Bub, finishing Del’s thought. “They are a very diverse company whereas our record label is focused on bluegrass two or three acts,” continues Bub. Del agrees. “That’s the secret right there,” he says. Recent changes haven’t been limited to record labels. About a year ago, DMB abandoned its traditional single-mic performance style for a double-mic setup. “We’re makin’ more money now, we bought another one,” jokes Del. “It gives you a little more output,” explains Ronnie. “It gives you a little more room to move around, maybe hear backup it fills us out.”
The one-mic approach has long been a bluegrass staple but, refreshingly, DMB decided to forgo tradition, not for the sake of abandonment but for the sake of adaptation. Another recent adaptation was hiring a manager after switching labels, so its focus could remain 100 percent on the music. Now armed with a manager, the band strives for continued growth. “It’s hard to do [certain] things yourself, says Del. “You almost have to have a manager and a good agent to luck out… I know that we’ll keep growing.”
Del’s career has been a lesson in growth and despite having played across six different decades, Del remains grounded in reality, and perhaps more importantly, humility. Del never forgets what got him started in the first place the love of string music. And he never forgets that it’s the audience that keeps him going. “The best part about [everything] is probably that little time you’re on stage,” says Del, “wouldn’t ya say?” A band thanking the audience seems almost trite these days, but Del makes it a point to show the audience how much he appreciates them, taking crowd requests on a regular basis. “Dad’s always involved the audience by asking for requests,” says Ronnie, “and we like it because we’re like OK, let’s do it.’ Then we get into it and it’s like, OK, do we remember it?’” Del’s logic on taking requests is simple. The audience pays good money to hear DMB perform so it should get to hear what it wants. Del’s penchant for humility has filtered down throughout the band, especially to his sons, who recall being raised by a bluegrass-picking, blue-collar working, father. “I remember when Dad was raising us,” recalls Ronnie. “We were going to school and he was getting up every morning, getting in the woods working when the sun was coming up and coming home when it was dark the hard times or whatever you call it. We didn’t think they were hard times.” Del also recalls the old days: “Back then, I was working a day job while the kids were growing up. I was working all through them years, but I also played music too. I just played music then because I liked music, but now,” he says nonchalantly, “I do it for a living.”
And a damn fine living he’s making. Here’s to hoping he doesn’t stop soon.